The hidden Arab moderates
While certain Arab governments are lauded by the West, democratic reform in the region is impeded by their efforts to exclude temperate Islamist forces from political life.
Arab official discourse is still approaching “peaceful” Islamist movements with trepidation and much duplicity.
Despite their considerable following, Islamist moderates mostly fail to get the recognition they deserve and are being systematically excluded from political life.
Arab official discourse towards “peaceful” Islamists is based on three assumptions.
First, that their political discourse undermines the foundations of the civil or “independent state” because of its reactionary interpretation of religion. Second, that there is no difference between hardline and moderate Islamists, and that “moderation” is just a cynical façade for extremism.
Third, that even “moderate” Islamist currents have a negative view of the Western world, which complicates the Western view of Islam in general. No one can ignore the negative impact of extremist thinking on the Western view of Islam, and yet we cannot afford to ignore the differences between hardliners and moderates.
The official Arab stand towards Islamists is not without its hidden agenda.
Governments are aware that growing Islamist influence may threaten the status quo and they want to monopolise religion for their own purposes. Arab official discourse becomes mere political cover for the kinds of exclusionary and eradication practices seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria and Morocco.
With few exceptions, moderate Islamists are not permitted to integrate into the political scene.
And even those Islamist currents that are allowed to participate are often persecuted and repressed by ruling regimes in an attempt to minimise their political impact, as can be seen in Jordan.
Arab officialdom is currently in a real dilemma concerning Islamists.
The dilemma has two aspects.
One is that Arab discourse claims to be about political reform and democratisation, and yet ruling regimes are still engaged in extreme exclusion and repression of their political opponents, chiefly Islamists.
The other aspect is that official discourse claims to be defending the tolerance of Islam in the face of Western suspicions while the repression of moderates only gives impetus to extremist and violent currents.
The past three years saw a major revision of various Islamist discourses, both moderate and hardline, as well as an erosion of the credibility of Arab official discourse.
Political Islam movements that seek peaceful integration — most of which owe their origins to the Muslims Brotherhood — have achieved remarkable intellectual and theological progress on many of the issues that used to be their points of weakness, such as democracy, political pluralism, human rights, minorities, citizenry, and freedom.
Islamists — whether centrist or rightwing or leftwing — have taken great strides, sometimes surpassing the ideas of secular liberal and leftist parties.
The Tunisian Al-Nahda (renaissance) Movement, with its conservative wing under Rached Ghannouchi and its progressive wing under Salaheddin Gourchi and Ahmeida Neifar, as well as a torrent of independent Islamists, provide a clear evidence of the extent of the intellectual accomplishment of peaceful Islamist discourse.
And the Arab scene still witnesses the birth of civil parties that adopt an Islamist agenda reminiscent of the ideas and programmes of liberal and progressive Christian parties in Europe and the US.
Furthermore, the agenda of those Islamists who participate in policymaking in their countries — as is the case in Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen and Mauritania — refutes claims of backwardness that are often levelled at them.
In my opinion, the Arab parties that have benefited most from the wave of violence and terror that swept many Arab countries are the moderate Islamists.
First, moderate Islamist movements have insisted on distancing themselves from violent groups, a matter that prompted them to revise their theological arguments so as not to give ammunition to their political opponents.
Second, those movements have a motive to emphasise the civilised nature of their political ideas, a matter that enticed them to embrace most of the vocabulary of humane culture and civilisation, especially with regard to freedom, equality, justice and respect for human rights.
Third, those movements had to translate their ideas into tangible programmes, which in turn prompted them to seek common ground with other political forces that may differ from them in thinking and approach.
By contrast, most secular liberal and leftist parties — some of them still in power — suffer from intellectual and organisational stagnation and have lost touch with the public as well as their own following.
This has somewhat boosted the social support for Islamist movements, giving them followers and supporters from all classes and ages.
Further, Islamist movements have benefited from the crisis of identity that has hit most Arab nations because of the failure of the political and cultural programmes of secular parties.
Indeed, a key source of strength for moderate Islamic currents is the socially charged atmosphere that exists in some Arab countries due to the policies of their regimes.
Under pressure, some governments resort to addressing peaceful Islamic currents as immutable and unable to change over time.
Often governments evoke certain events from the deep past to discredit those currents.
The tactics of these regimes only increases the popularity of moderate Islamists, boosting their political standing.
In other words, exclusion backfires.
Most of the movements that have been ignored and repressed often return to the political scene with a vengeance.
In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced a revival in the 1970s following a period of well-publicised repression under Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
The same thing happened in Algeria, where Islamist currents made a comeback after a bloody faceoff between the Algerian regime and the Islamic Salvation Front.
In my opinion, either Arab officialdom updates its language, vocabulary and practices in a manner that pulls the carpet from underneath the Islamists, or it allows Islamists to be integrated within its reform efforts and recognises them as a partner in the political game.
The inability thus far of Arab governments to address the question of moderate Islamists has impeded prospects for genuine democratic reform in the Arab world.
* The writer is a specialist in political Islam .